SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
News of the Week: Mark Cuban on Vince McMahon and New Japan Pro Wrestling
New Japan Pro Wrestling airs every Friday night on AXS TV, and the television network, whose chairman is billionaire Mark Cuban, continues to invest more money into its pro wrestling show.
“We’re looking to expand it on Friday nights,” Cuban said in an exclusive interview with Sports Illustrated. “We want to do more live, as opposed to the delay, and we’re talking to them about special events.”
Despite a foray into the wrestling business, Cuban does not believe that WWE CEO Vince McMahon is threatened by the working relationship between AXS and New Japan.
“No, he thinks we’re just little sh---,” said Cuban. “We’re not a threat because of the language. That’s the biggest challenge, the language. But if you’re a purist for wrestling, and you like the action, it’s the best promotion by far. People here aren’t going to connect as directly, but if you really love wrestling, then it’s a no-brainer.”
Cuban is an advocate for those fans thirsting for more New Japan. He purchased the rights to air the top three title matches from New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 12–IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito, IWGP Intercontinental champ Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Jay White, and IWGP US champion Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho–in prime time on Saturday, January 6, only two days after the event takes place at the Tokyo Dome. Despite the high price to air Wrestle Kingdom on AXS, Cuban did not balk at the cost.
“We’re getting to know them better,” said Cuban. “We went from a delay to a short delay to live, so we’re going to get smarter about it. The numbers keep on going up. Other TVs are declining, and ours are going up. That’s a good sign. There are some nights when it beats MMA, it’s doing that well.”
AXS TV produces the English language version of New Japan Pro Wrestling in association with TV ASAHI Corporation, which is the distributor of NJPW. Their coverage of Wrestle Kingdom 12 will continue on January 12, and the entire show will play out over the following five Friday nights. There will also be an eight-hour marathon on January 6 that will feature matches that set up Wrestle Kingdom.
Cuban credited AXS TV Fights CEO Andrew Simon with leading the production, and he is thrilled to have WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross as the signature voice of the show.
“I even tune in to check out Jim,” said Cuban. “I can’t say I’m hardcore, but the show is more focused on the wrestling–that’s the glitz–than what you get anywhere else. The talent quality is equal to any of the other promotions, without question.”
Cuban noted that he is energized by the hardcore nature of the New Japan fans, and is excited to build an even wider audience with fans who have yet to experience New Japan on Friday nights with Jim Ross calling the action.
“We want people to get attached and become addicted to it,” said Cuban. “Now we’re online with DirectTV and Sling TV, and Philo.com, which is only $15 a month, so if you don’t have us on cable, you can get us online.
“There will be times in the future when we add more NJPW and less MMA. It’s a Friday night staple.”
Sasha Banks and Alexa Bliss made history this past week by becoming the first women to have a pro wrestling match in front of a crowd in Abu Dhabi, the capital of The United Arab Emirates.
Or did they?
Contrary to reports, which included those from USA Today, Banks and Bliss were not the first women from a major company to perform a wrestling match in Abu Dhabi. TNA’s 2010 tour included a stop at the Abu Dhabi Combat Club, which saw Angelina Love and Velvet Sky defeat Madison Rayne and Sarita in tag team action.
ESPN was careful to note in its report that this event was the first time WWE had its female wrestlers perform in Abu Dhabi, but made no mention of the TNA show in 2010.
The discrepancy raises two questions. First, if a feat has already been accomplished, is the second instance truly historic? And secondly, should fans question the message that WWE is delivering?
Wrestling and the media–or, better yet, wrestling with the media–is a landscape that is still undefined. People in the online wrestling community criticized Pro Wrestling Sheet’s Ryan Satin for his report on WWE’s Rich Swann’s arrest this past weekend, debating whether it was an invasion of Swann’s privacy, but Satin’s report was handled no differently than had Swann been a professional athlete instead of a sports entertainer.
Fact and fiction intersect at a high frequency in pro wrestling, and WWE has to promote its product as cutting edge and revolutionary. It makes sense that the company portrayed the Banks-Bliss match as a landmark moment for women’s wrestling, despite the fact it wasn’t entirely true. Wrestling fans, no differently than NFL or NBA fans, should (and often do) question the product. WWE has every right to promote the match as the first of its kind and revolutionary, but those blanket statements do not mean they are true.
In other news…
• Shame on us for applying logic to an illogical business, but could WWE have designed a more frustrating finish for the Raw main event between Braun Strowman and Kane than a double countout?
How did Vince McMahon convince himself that fans want to see Kane in a No. 1 contender’s match?
Sunday’s Clash of Champions features a lackluster card, highlighted by a rematch for the WWE championship between AJ Styles and Jinder Mahal.
The WWE is clearly in a holding pattern, waiting for its build to January’s Royal Rumble, but those sleeping on Sunday’s card will be pleasantly surprised: even in the absence of intricate storylines, the wrestlers are so talented that the wrestling at the Clash will make the show a success.
As for a major Clash storyline, does anyone else have the nagging suspicion that Randy Orton will turn on Shinsuke Nakamura this Sunday?
• Dalton Castle is only two nights away from the biggest match of his career.
Castle looks to cement his place in wrestling as Ring of Honor world champion this Friday on pay per view at Final Battle, which is emanating live from New York City at the Manhattan Center’s Hammerstein Ballroom, as he battles ROH champ Cody Rhodes.
“It’s pretty intense to think back to when I started and where I am now,” said Castle. “It’s a lot of responsibility, and there is a lot of pressure I put on myself, but I’ve got nothing but excitement for the biggest spot of my life.”
Jay Lethal and Christopher Daniels each had the chance to put Ring of Honor on their shoulders and battle the Bullet Club, but both have come up short. Now it is time for Castle to wave his peacock-colored Ring of Honor flag and stand up against the toughest faction in pro wrestling.
“People think the Bullet Club is so bad,” said Castle. “I’m bad, too. Just the other week, I needed to run into a store for only five minutes and I didn’t even stick a dime into the parking meter. That was my way to stick it to the man and be a little bad.
“I don’t think I’ve picked a fight with the entire Bullet Club, which is a tough one to win. Mainly, my fight is with Cody. I think there are 72 Bullet Club members today and only one peacock, but I do have lots of boys. You are familiar with my two main boys, but I have lots of them.”
Castle is 31-year-old Rochester, New York native Brett Giehl. An amateur wrestler in high school, he made his initial entry into the business after interviewing wrestlers while working as a disc jockey, calling himself Dalton Castle and conducting a series of interviews on the air with wrestlers he called “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Tights.”
Unlike Rhodes, who is the son of wrestling icon Dusty Rhodes, Castle knows that his road to wrestling superstardom is far rockier.
“I still tell myself every time I’m about to go the ring that I’m starting back at zero,” said Castle. “Even though the anxiety that stirs within me disagrees, I feel like it’s good for me. That reminds me that I need to prove myself every time.”
On paper, the flamboyant, Liberace-esque Dalton Castle looks like it would be quicker to fail than succeed. The charisma needed to perform the role, as well as excel in the ring, is a combo that few in the business offer. Those watching Final Battle this Friday will take comfort in knowing there is no one else in the industry–and that includes WWE talent–quite like Dalton Castle.
“I know exactly who Dalton is,” Castle explained. “Over the years, I’ve learned I have what it takes to make this work. I am confident and fearless in every move I make.
“It’s not just a costume or an entrance that makes me confident. I know I have the talent to make everything work. And once I get in the ring, I’m a great wrestler. That’s why I feel confident in every move I make.”
Last year’s Final Battle featured a grudge match between Castle and Colt Cabana. The crowd was enthralled by Castle’s entrance to the ring, which saw him carried by The Boys in a self-made chariot.
“I put a lot of effort into my entrances,” confirmed Castle. “I built that in my own place. Then I tore it down, built it up again, tore it up to put in the car, then built it up again at Final Battle.”
WWE stars do not build the props for their grand entrances at WrestleMania, but Castle was unwilling to entrust someone else with his success. Along with Rusev’s WrestleMania 31 entrance atop an army tank and Kenny Omega’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 Terminator-inspired entrance, the arrival of Castle by chariot stands out as one of the most memorable across the entire industry in the past five years.
“I can tell you there will not be a tank and there won’t be terminators, but there will be something fantastic,” promised Castle.
If victorious on Friday, Castle also vowed to add some color to the Bullet Club, whose t-shirts are predominantly black-and-white.
“I’d probably need to take out Kenny Omega next if I wanted to attack Bullet Club at its peak, but I know exactly what I would change,” said Castle. “Enough with the skeletons and the skulls, let’s put some clothes on them. A skeleton is just a naked body, it’s too provocative.”
Castle enters the title match with Rhodes as the clear underdog. There are discussions of Rhodes battling Daniel Bryan a year from now at Final Battle in 2018, and ROH seemingly has no plans to take the title off Rhodes, yet Castle is one who is not overlooking the opportunity this Friday.
“This is, by far, the biggest moment of my life,” said Castle. “I am walking into Final Battle and proving I belong in that spot in the main event. Only one thing is true about the match Cody and I are going to have: it’s going to be memorable.”
• EVOLVE delivered EVOLVE 97 this past Sunday at Memorial Hall in Melrose, Massachusetts.
Highlights included Darby Allin winning a triple-threat match over Keith Lee and Tracy Williams, Matt Riddle tapping out the beast from Vienna WALTER in a no rope break match, and Zack Sabre Jr. successfully defending the EVOLVE title over Jaka to close out the show.
Austin Theory also defeated Fred Yehi for the Full Impact Pro world title. FIP, like EVOLVE, is another promotion under the World Wrestling Network umbrella. Yehi was the longest-reigning champion of a title that has seen title runs by Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, and Dean Ambrose, and now the talented 20-year-old Theory takes the reigns.
The match, which includes guest commentary from yours truly, is an exclusive to the Week in Wrestling readers.
• Gavin Fitzgerald directed Notorious, which is the all-access account filmed over four years that details UFC megastar Conor McGregor’s rise to fame.
“From the first time I spoke to Conor in 2012, I knew there was something different about him,” said Fitzgerald. “He just has this infectious positivity and an unwavering belief in his fighting ability. In that first interview we ever did with him, he was talking about beating guys who shouldn’t have even been on his radar yet, people like Jose Aldo. Conor just always had the gift of the gab and as a filmmaker that’s always going to get you excited.”
The link between pro wrestling and McGregor will forever exist. McGregor infamously told this reporter in August of 2016 during a UFC conference call that, “For the most part, those WWE guys are p------. They’re messed up p------, if you ask me.”
Count Fitzgerald among those who believe McGregor will eventually step foot inside a WWE ring, but only when the time–and, more importantly, the price–is right.
“If there’s money to be made, I can see it happening after he retires,” said Fitzgerald. “He’ll probably play the villain and keep mouthing off these wrestlers in the meantime. It’s great theatre.”
McGregor is arguably the single-most attractive draw in combat sports. He even boxed Floyd “Money” Mayweather this past summer and put on a show that captivated pay per view audiences. Fitzgerald admitted that he is constantly surprised by McGregor, who has somehow been able to back up nearly every seemingly preposterous claim he has ever made.
“He was as good as he said he was,” said Fitzgerald. “All fighters have to believe they’re the best, but Conor really was. I don’t think you can separate his self-belief from his fighting ability. He tells everyone that he’s going to walk through his opponents and that makes him train hard enough to prove it.
“I was incredibly fortunate to stumble upon an early Conor McGregor. That won’t happen to me again. I guess I knew it was going to be big when Conor’s fame exploded. The more famous he became, the more drama he was surrounded by, making day-to-day life seem like the set of movie. It was such an exciting project to be right in the middle of.”
The film provides incredible footage, as well as delivers a compelling storyline detailing McGregor’s struggles and success. After opening to select theaters in November, the film is now available to view online.
“Self-believe is Conor’s code of ethics,” explained Fitzgerald. “‘I can do this. I won’t listen to those who tell me I can’t.’ I remember when he mentioned he was applying for his boxing license in the Nate Diaz camp. Even then I couldn’t have fathomed that the Mayweather fight would actually happen but it did. He has the ability to change the rules of a game and venture into unchartered waters.”
• Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard and co-host Conrad Thompson return this Friday at noon ET with a new podcast, detailing the WWE career of the “Rated-R Superstar” Edge.
“Edge came in and was saddled with what many thought was a goofy gimmick as a vampire who spit blood,” said Thompson, referring to Edge’s WWE debut in 1998. “We’ll cover his beginning, the first time he cashed in for the WWE title, and we’ll briefly touch on Matt Hardy and Lita, too.”
Thompson is particularly excited to hear Prichard share some behind-the-scenes stories from when Edge was one of the top heels in the business in 2007-08.
“That was his best work, as a singles heel champ on top,” said Thompson. “There has been a lot of debate since over whether Edge is a true Hall of Famer, and we’ll break down all his accomplishments, all the rumor and innuendo, and address some of the real life moments that stumbled in along the way, including friendships, relationships, marriage, accusations from an ex-wife, Wrestlers’ Court incidents, and everything in-between, like Vince responding to ideas like the kazoo and ‘The Five-Second Pose.’”
Thompson added that a section of the show will be dedicated to John Cena Sr., who was part of an extremely memorable scene with Edge during his feud with the younger Cena in 2006.
The scene is well-known among WWE officials for Cena Sr.’s inclination to ad-lib lines, and Prichard was the agent for the segment.
“It’s hilarious to hear Vince’s reaction,” said Thompson. “John Cena Sr.’s moment will steal the show.”
Thompson was humbled by the news that SI’s Richard Deitsch chose “Something to Wrestle” as the best sports podcast of 2017.
“It’s humbling to know people are digging what we’re doing,” said Thompson. “We’re not even a real sport, and certainly not a traditional podcast, either. To be honored like this is one of the coolest things to happen to Bruce and me, and we’re thankful for the support.”
Thompson and Prichard will visit the House of Blues in Boston this Sunday before Clash of Champions, and they are ready to detail all the major WWE events to occur in Boston.
“We’ll cover all of the WWF/WWE memories in Boston, and one of my favorite shows to cover is WrestleMania 14,” said Thompson. “It was a really critical time for WWE, who was at a crossroads with ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin becoming the guy and it feels like the end of an era with Shawn Michaels. A lot of people remember Bret Hart being run out of town, but just five months later, Shawn Michaels was, too. It’s the beginning of a new DX the next night, the last night we see the winged title, and there is so much going in that era. I’m really excited to cover it this Sunday at the House of Blues.
• Coming attractions: Sports Illustrated will have a feature story with the Big Show this Friday on SI.com.
• As we draw toward the holiday season, Al Snow’s weekly advice column, Inside Al’s Head, looks at the intersection of pro wrestling and religion.
“If you go into any church, especially a Christian-based church, whether it’s Catholicism, Baptist, Protestant, or Southern Baptist, they spend three-quarters of their time putting heat on Satan,” said Snow. “Why is that? Because Jesus can’t get over if Satan doesn’t draw heat.”
Snow does not currently subscribe to organized religion, which allows him to be a non-biased observer of the connections between wrestling and religion. He also stressed that he meant no disrespect by his comments, noting he has respect for others’ beliefs and was not burying any particular religion or belief, but rather extending a pragmatic view of the practices.
“Jesus Christ is the most over babyface in the history of the world,” Snow said in a very tongue-and-cheek manner. “I say that all the time. He had the greatest high spots in the world. He walked on water, cured the sick, and healed the blind. You don’t get more ‘over’ than Jesus.”
Snow even sees connections between selling out a venue in wrestling, ie; filling up a house, with ensuring pews are full every week for Sunday service.
“The practitioners, whether it be a pastor or a reverend or a priest, know how to work the congregation, and they’re very good at it,” said Snow. “That’s not an admonishment on organized religion in any way, it’s simply a fact. It’s very much like wrestling. You build a congregation, or an audience, to a crescendo, and then you send them out the door so that they’ll be motivated to come back next week.
“You have to keep drawing the house. If you don’t, you can’t support the church. That’s not a knock or a mock, it’s simply a statement of reality. They need to pay bills and have a certain amount of capital to conduct good works. The only way you do that is by having parishioners.”
A natural inquiry among wrestling fans would be where Vince McMahon fits in between Snow’s parallels of pro wrestling and religion.
“No matter what people say about Vince, he is, without a doubt, a true leader,” said Snow. “He would never ask someone to do something for the business that he would not do himself. No matter the industry or field, entertainment or otherwise, that’s rare to find. Vince will never ask you to work harder than he does, he’ll never ask you to do something on TV that he wouldn’t do. Vince kissed someone’s ass on live TV. He didn’t have to do that. He made it look like he wet himself on live, international TV. He shaved his own head at a major, international show. He’s humiliated himself for the business.”
“Is he Jesus Christ? Certainly, no. I would say he is a very astute reverend or pastor of his parishioners and disciples, leading them in the way of his beliefs.”
Tweet of the Week
Drew Gulak is reason alone to watch 205 Live.